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Offseason Preview Series: Celtics and the Mid-Level Exception

Boston will likely have only the Taxpayer MLE of $5.7 million this offseason

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The 2020-21 Boston Celtics are likely to be an expensive team. Math favors Gordon Hayward opting in, or opting out and re-signing at a relatively slight discount for 2020-21, while adding more years onto his deal. Kemba Walker is on a max contract. Jaylen Brown’s near-max extension kicks in. Marcus Smart makes over $13 million. Jayson Tatum is at $9.9 million in the final season of his rookie scale deal.

Add it all up and Boston is likely to be in the luxury tax next season. Danny Ainge even said that is something Boston is prepared for. That bill could be even larger if Hayward opts in and the Celtics keep their 2020 draft picks.

What would drive that tax bill even higher is if the Celtics were to use the entirety of their Mid-Level Exception (MLE). Before we get to that, it’s important to know Boston will even be working with MLE-wise.

There are two different types of MLE: Non-Taxpayer and Taxpayer. The Non-Taxpayer is often called the “Full MLE”, while the Taxpayer is regularly referred to as the “Mini MLE”. Each NBA gets this exception each year. If the cap stays flat at $109 million, the value for the Non-Taxpayer MLE is $9,258,000. The Taxpayer MLE is almost half that amount at $5,718,000.

Despite their naming, simply being in the luxury tax doesn’t decide which MLE a team gets. Instead, it’s determined in relation to the tax apron. The tax apron is an amount about $6 million above the luxury tax. The reason for this is the tax apron is where a team can become subject to the hard cap. If a team is hard capped, they can’t spend even $1 above the apron. This was an issue that plagued the Golden State Warriors last season.

A team becomes hard capped in one of three ways:

· They receive a player via sign and trade. (Note: receive, not send out) This is why sign and trade ideas were left out of the trade ideas part of the Offseason Preview Series.

· They use the Bi-Annual Exception (BAE)

· They use an amount of the Non-Taxpayer MLE that is equivalent or greater than the Taxpayer MLE

Because teams become hard capped if they use the BAE or the Taxpayer equivalent of the MLE, teams that are over the apron don’t get either of these exceptions. It’s that last part about the MLE that likely applies most to the Celtics for 2020-21. Boston may start the offseason with the Non-Taxpayer MLE, but they’ll be close enough to the hard cap that using more than the Taxpayer MLE mark isn’t feasible. This is also why you won’t hear much, if any, discussion of sign and trades or use of the BAE.

Now that we have a sense of what Boston is working with (about $5.7 million), how about talking about some actual players? That seems like a logical next step! We’re going to break this up into three groups, while recognizing some players can swing between groups:

· Bigs

· Wings

· Ballhandlers

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If you’ve read the other editions of the Offseason Preview Series (And you should. If you haven’t, go do so and come back here!), you probably know we don’t think Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier will be back. That leaves Daniel Theis, Robert Williams and Grant Williams as the lone bigs on the roster. That’s pretty thin, especially with a true, bulky big.

The challenge with bigs for Boston is that they have to do more than just be big. At a minimum they need to be good screen setters on offense. Ideally, they can shoot some, pass or both. On defense, they should be able to switch and hold their own. If not, they need to be a banger and rebounder that can anchor the back line of the defense. It’s hard to find players who fit that mold, but this free agent class offers a few nice fits.

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Aron Baynes

Old friend Aron Baynes has to be near the top of the list. Baynes was a terrific fit in Boston for two seasons. He was a defense-focused starter for most of his first season. In his second year, Baynes came off the bench for the most part, but showed off an improved three-point shot to go along with his defense. The Celtics would certainly welcome Baynes back as a quality backup or sometimes starter against bigger centers (think Joel Embiid).

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Harry Giles

It feels like the Celtics and Harry Giles have been linked for years now, but it’s really only been a couple. Giles is a former teammate and friend of Jayson Tatum, which is nice, but that’s not why Boston should consider him. The Sacramento Kings inexplicably declined Giles’ fourth-year rookie scale option. That limits them to paying him a first-year salary of $3.9 million. Boston can beat that with the Taxpayer MLE of $5.7 million. Giles has shown off solid all-around skills in limited minutes in Sacramento. Brad Stevens’ system would unlock Giles and allow him to reach his considerable potential.

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Tristan Thompson

This one might be a bit of a pipe dream, as Tristan Thompson can probably command more than what Boston can offer in salary. But if the market squeezes him, Thompson could see his options dwindle. He’s long tormented the Celtics, so that makes him a logical target. His defense and rebounding would be a great addition for Boston. And his offensive game is just versatile enough to fit.

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Derrick Favors

It’s hard to peg exactly where Derrick Favors lands in the free agent big hierarchy. Some teams really like him, while others think he’s mostly washed up. It’s that latter camp that could make him a reasonable target for Boston. He wasn’t the best fit, and battled some injuries, in New Orleans, but still put up a near double-double of 9.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 61.7% shooting. His defense slipped a bit, which is worrisome, as that would be a big part of his role for the Celtics.

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Alex Len or Meyers Leonard

We’re lumping these two together, as they’re somewhat similar as players. Both can stretch the floor some (Leonard is better than Len) and rebound and play defense (Len is better than Leonard). Neither is a massive upgrade over what Enes Kanter gave Boston this year, but more of a different look. In what would likely be a third big role, it’s good to have some variance behind Daniel Theis and Robert Williams.


Some others to consider would be Bobby Portis (if Knicks decline his team option), Dario Saric (if he’s unrestricted) and Robin Lopez (if he opts out). Anyone else is more of a fit for the Minimum Exception or will be well out of Boston’s price range.

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We’re assuming Gordon Hayward will likely be back. So, at first glance you might wonder why Boston needs a wing. They’ve got Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Hayward. That’s one of the better collections of wings in the NBA. It’s what’s behind them that is worrisome.

We can feel confident in saying Hayward will miss some time. Brown has also been consistently nicked up in recent regular seasons. Romeo Langford, who would be poised to step forward, is probably going to miss at least the start of the season. That doesn’t leave much on the current roster. Therefore, the MLE could be used to target a wing.

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Maurice Harkless

Maurice Harkless would be a swing for Boston, as he can play 3/4. He’s a solid shooter and good scorer. His defense, when in a good team system, is solid. He might end up out of the Celtics salary-range, as he could command the full Non-Taxpayer MLE from someone. But if he gets squeezed, he could be there for Boston.

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Evan Turner

Why not consider another old friend in Evan Turner? He played so well in Boston the first time around that he got a massive contract offer from the Portland Trail Blazers and Danny Ainge immediately advised him to take it. Turner has the benefit of being a bigger ballhandler for Boston as times. He can also lead a second unit with his mid-range scoring.

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Justin Holiday

Justin Holiday got squeezed last offseason and had to take the Room Exception from the Indiana Pacers. He’s likely to stay in Indiana and to continue to play with his brother, but if he wants to contend, Boston would be a great spot. Holiday can shoot and has good size on the wing. He’s also a good team defender. That’d be a nice fit for the Taxpayer MLE.

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Kent Bazemore

Kent Bazemore is in an interesting spot. He’s coming off a big contract, but could find himself on the Minimum Exception in his next contract. If Boston made him a priority as a 3&D wing, they could snag him for the Taxpayer MLE by virtue of offering more than others.

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Austin Rivers

It was a very short stint for Rivers in Boston his first time around, as he was a Celtic for all of three days without getting in a game. Since then, he’s become a solid scoring guard off the bench. Rivers has experience playing off the ball now, and he’s also defended bigger players the last couple of years. He’d be a 1-3 player for the Celtics and fill a lot of roles, while providing some scoring.


There aren’t really any other options, as everyone else is out of Boston’s price range or a Minimum Exception player.

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This one gets bumped down the list a bit because Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart are entrenched as Boston’s primary and backup ballhandler. Because Smart plays everywhere though, Brad Stevens has always made good use of a third point guard. This free agent class lacks great high-end options, but good veteran depth throughout. If the Celtics go older at the position vs an up-and-coming younger player, they can find good values.

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D.J. Augustin

While he was talked about as an overpaid signing, and continual tradable player, with the Orlando Magic, D.J. Augustin played well. He can shoot and competently run an offense. He’s got starting experience, but is perfectly comfortable as a backup. Despite his lack of size, he’s a competitive defender. He’d be a great fit for Boston, especially if Kemba Walker’s needs injury-management throughout the season.

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Michael Carter-Williams

Unless you watch the Orlando Magic, you probably don’t know that Michael Carter-Williams has become a pretty good player. The former Rookie of the Year will never reach that status again, but he’s now a 1-3 defender that can run an offense as the lead ballhandler. Think of Carter-Williams as a poor man’s Marcus Smart. That’s what he’s grown into now.

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Langston Galloway

Langston Galloway is coming off a string of nice years with the Detroit Pistons. He’s more of a scoring guard than a playmaker, but that’s fine for a bench option. He’s good on and off the ball and can really shoot it. Despite his lack of size, Galloway can defend bigger players when paired with a second ballhandler. He’d be a solid addition to a Boston bench that needs some scoring punch.

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Cameron Payne

If you watched basketball in the bubble, you probably know Cameron Payne was excellent for the Phoenix Suns. The early part of Payne’s career was spent as a low-minute backup to Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In his first big opportunity with the Chicago Bulls, he faltered big time. Since then, Payne has been working on his game in the G-League with the goal of getting back to the NBA. Now, he’s ready to contribute as a regular rotation player. If Phoenix declines their team option for 2020-21, Payne is a player Boston could snag to fill the backup ballhandler role.

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Tyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson is another player who benefitted from the restart. He played well for the Brooklyn Nets and showed he’s deserving of a rotation role next season. Johnson’s size allows him to play both guard spots and to defend some of the smaller forwards in the league. He’s a decent playmaker, better-than-you-think shooter and good scorer. Mostly, it feels like Johnson is a Celtics killer. This would be a Bill Belichick-like move of signing the guy you can’t stop yourself.

Who do you want to see the Celtics sign with the MLE? Let us know in the comments who some of your favorite targets are!

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